Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 6)

The Big Three (Psalter Hymnals)It’s long past time to wrap up URC Psalmody’s summer series. I head back to Geneva College in a week, and what I imagined as two or three blog posts has grown into a lengthy and multi-faceted series. That’s typical fare for this blog—so today, let me try to provide some concise closing thoughts.

We began by asking this question: Why do we sing out of a Psalter Hymnal? More particularly, why do we sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two?

To help answer this question historically, I dug up several applicable documents from the early history of the Christian Reformed Church: overtures from different classes in 1928 (here and here) regarding the question of hymn-singing, the “Report on the Hymn Question” from 1930, the Foreword to the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934, and a few other sources. I found plenty of arguments for and against hymn-singing in worship (along with a fair share of weird Dutch expressions). What I didn’t find was a substantial argument on Biblical and historical grounds to justify the introduction of hymns—especially in a denomination that had gotten along fine without them since the Reformation 300 years earlier. I read plenty of reasons why hymns might be permissible in worship, but not much (other than repeated appeals to “New Testament light”) as to why they were needed.

In fact, even the optimistic Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 acknowledged some significant dangers with the introduction of hymn-singing. One of them was that the psalms would cease to be sung in worship. Wary of this possibility, the Committee proposed the following principle:

Whereas the Psalms in the Old Testament were purposely given for Public Worship (cf. for instance Ps. 51:1; 52:1; 53:1; etc.) and were used accordingly, and whereas they do not belong to the things set aside by the New Testament, but, to the contrary, their Divine authority and lasting worth is pronouncedly acknowledged in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33,35), it must be considered, acknowledged, and maintained by us as a principle founded on the Word of God, that Psalm-singing must always remain an element in our Public Worship.…[A] service without the singing of Psalms would be conflicting with the will of God as revealed in His Word. (pp. 21,22)

Yet after this well-placed word of caution, the committee rushes to add, “Nor does it follow that because of said danger the use of New Testament Church songs must be considered out of the question.” Just because they can be abused doesn’t mean they can’t be used properly, they suggest. Besides, they claim, the “urgent demand” for hymns in Reformed churches cannot be brushed aside as “disloyalty, spiritual weakening, and retrogression.” Once again they call attention to supposed insufficiencies in the psalms: that they speak only “in the Old Testament language of hopefully expectant prophecy, not in the New Testament language of jubilant fulfilment.” And here’s the real whopper: they turn the discussion about hymn-singing on its head by suggesting that an exclusively psalm-singing church is “guilty of neglect in properly caring for Public Worship and for the perfection of the saints, and of slighting a precious gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a psalm-singing church harms its members by not allowing the singing of hymns. That’s a bold claim!

In summary, the committee asked the Synod of 1930 to (1) continue the preparation of a collection of English hymns; and (2) to (attempt to) prevent psalm-singing from fading away by revising the Church Order and setting limits in place on how many hymns could be sung in a worship service. Synod more or less agreed, and the Psalter Hymnal project moved forward. That’s most of the story; for the rest of it, you can refer back to the first Psalter Hymnal’s Foreword.

Got it? Does this synopsis give you an historical glimpse into the reason for the unusual wording in the URCNA’s Church Order—that the psalms “have the principal place,” but hymns “may be sung”? The relationship between psalms and hymns in North American Reformed worship is a long and complicated one. Partly it was a Dutch vs. English and European vs. American issue. Partly it was a Reformed vs. broader evangelical issue. Mostly it was an issue of biblical interpretation. And just because the CRC’s synod officially “settled” the question doesn’t mean it really went away.

Eighty years ago, hymns entered the worship of a denomination that was still deeply divided over the question. That’s the heritage that’s been handed down to us in the URCNA.

I can’t end without noting one additional twist, however. While the 1932 Church Order clearly stated that “the singing of the Psalms in divine worship is a requirement,” the CRC later revised their Church Order to merely state, “The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used” (Revised Church Order, 1959, Article 52b). All reference to the primacy of the Psalter was gone! With that revision in mind, it’s important—and encouraging—to note that the URCNA’s Church Order is actually a step back in the direction of principial psalm-singing.

How will the URCNA’s worship change as the years go on? Will our new Psalter Hymnal prove to strengthen our commitment to psalm-singing or dampen it? For the answer to these questions we’ll have to wait on God, pray fervently, and work for the good of the Church. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable in his sight.

–MRK

“Crippled in Both Feet”

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

Why has psalm-singing fallen by the wayside in so much of the Western church? Many people blame the rise of hymn-singing for the decline of psalm-singing. But in 1906, two men from the Christian Reformed Church reversed the argument. Instead they blamed a deficiency in psalm-singing for the rise of hymn-singing.

Today I’d like to take a short excursion from this summer’s Behind the Psalter Hymnal series—which is almost over, don’t worry—to present another fascinating document from the vaults of church history. It’s a report submitted to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1906 on “the new American rhyming of the Psalter.” That “new American rhyming” would become the United Presbyterian Psalter published in 1912, whose psalm settings have become beloved favorites in many Reformed churches. The 1912 Psalter was the source for most of the psalm settings in the blue Psalter Hymnal and several other psalters of the 20th century.

As the finishing touches were being applied to the text of this new psalter in 1906, Henry Beets and Henry Vander Werp submitted this report to the CRC’s synod to provide some background and personal commentary on the project. The original report was in Dutch; since then it’s also been converted into English by an unknown translator, and the version I’ve posted on URC Psalmody is a slightly edited version of this translation.

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

In their report, the two Henrys compare the psalters that were then being used in the English-speaking and Dutch-speaking churches of the CRC. The former often used the 1887 United Presbyterian revision of the Psalter (pictured at the top of this page). The latter used the Genevan Psalter according to its 1773 translation into Dutch (pictured at right). In colorfully blunt language, Beets and Vander Werp expose serious deficiencies in the English psalter. They call it “kreupelrijm, en in meerdere gevallen kreupel aanbeide voeten”—“a crippled rhyming, and in most instances crippled in both feet.” They compare the Dutch psalter to the sun, and the English to “the moon, and not even a full moon!” They even write that the English translation “must take a back seat for the Dutch sister”—who knows where that expression came from.

Readers from the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), you might think the authors would at least have a higher regard for your psalm settings. Nope—in their opinion, the psalter “of the Covenanter Church here and in Scotland is much poorer and less poetic” even than the “crippled rhyming” of the United Presbyterians. Ouch!

We could easily write off these pastors’ criticisms of the English psalter as mere ethnic favoritism. Of course two ministers whose first language was Dutch would prefer a Dutch psalter to an English one! But I think there’s more to it than that. Beets and Vander Werp write:

The greatest defectiveness…with respect to the rhyming of the Psalms in our country is the spiritual poverty. In order to cling scrupulously to the Hebrew text, they have, so to speak, placed handcuffs upon the spirit thereof in many places. The glorious worshipful spirit of the Psalms cannot spread out its wings far enough in such narrow boundaries.

I’m sure Beets and Vander Werp would emphasize that any translation of the Psalms must faithfully represent the original Scripture. But they make an interesting point: by attempting to be slavishly literal, the translators of past English psalters often made the psalms actually more difficult to understand. How can the average psalm-singer even begin to worship while struggling to decipher perplexing lines like “For thee to keep in all thy ways/His angels charge He shall”? Such language may have been (slightly?) more colloquial in 17th-century Scotland, but in our contemporary American context, must we really settle for this?

Not only do these ministers propose that a rhyming of the psalms can be done better, they say it needs to be done better. They write:

From this is to be understood the great urge for spiritual songs [i.e. hymns] which are used in the American churches. At first these hymns found entrance because the Scottish rhyming did not do enough for the Christian heart, which felt a need greater than the stiff, crippled, spiritually poor rhyming used for centuries in the Scottish churches could supply. Hence there are very few Psalms found in the hymnbooks of most American churches. (emphasis mine)

Here my ears really perked up. If you ask why the Psalter has fallen out of use in most American churches, people will blame a variety of sources: Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases, Ira Sankey’s gospel hymns, or the genre of “CCM.” But what if these pastors are on to something? Maybe part of the reason we stopped singing the psalms was because our translations didn’t do them justice.

There’s good news, of course. The 1912 Psalter, which Beets and Vander Werp called “unquestionably a great improvement,” has ingrained its psalm settings into the hearts and minds of multiple generations of believers, including many of us in the URCNA. Now, in the 21st century, we have at our disposal a wealth of resources for psalm-singing that is not only literal but also beautiful and memorable. The Reformed Presbyterians’ recent Book of Psalms for Worship includes many excellent psalm settings, both new and old, recast in simple, straightforward English. For those who still prefer the Genevan tunes, like Beets and Vander Werp so obviously did, there are the Canadian Reformed Churches’ new Book of Praise and New Genevan Psalter. And, of course, we have the promise of a further contribution to modern metrical psalmody in the URCNA and OPC’s forthcoming Psalter Hymnal.

When it comes to hymns and psalm settings, I’ve always tended to be a stickler for the “original lyrics.” I love some of the quirky wording of old psalters, and I’ll be sad if I ever have to see them go: “All earth to Him her homage brings,” “Who only doeth wondrous works in glory that excel.” But if we insist on clinging to archaic, deficient psalm settings merely for the sake of history or tradition, we may need to be reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “[I]f with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?…For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (I Cor. 14:9,33).

–MRK

Read the complete report here »

150 Questions about the Psalter (Review)

150 Questions about the Psalter“God gave his church the musical gift of the Psalter,” writes Bradley Johnston at the beginning of his little book 150 Questions about the Psalter (107 pp., Crown & Covenant, 2015). Formatted as a psalm-singing catechism of sorts, Johnston’s book teaches readers to love the Book of Psalms as a gift from God and to learn to shape their devotions and worship by it.

After an opening section entitled “Introducing the Psalter,” the book proceeds through six other divisions: “Christ in the Psalter,” “The Arrangement of the Psalter,” “The Content of the Psalter,” “Meditating on the Psalter,” “Singing the Psalter,” and “The Majesty of the Psalter.” Each division answers a variety of questions about the psalms: What is a metrical psalter? Should we regard the Psalter as merely a hymnal for the Old Testament? How do we learn to see Jesus Christ in the Psalter? Why should we sing the Psalms?

While Johnston’s answers to these questions are overall quite simple and straightforward, 150 Questions also includes almost 100 endnotes with fuller explanations and references to other resources on psalm-singing. Interspersed throughout the text are selected stanzas from a modern metrical psalter, The Book of Psalms for Worship. Several appendices in the back of 150 Questions trace the life of David through the Psalter, the patterns of the imprecatory psalms, an index of psalm references in the New Testament, and much more. It’s a readable, satisfying, and even fun introduction to the riches God has given his Church in the Book of Psalms.

Realizing that its author belongs to a denomination that sings only psalms in corporate worship, I feared that 150 Questions would immediately estrange readers from other church traditions by pointedly condemning hymns and other extra-biblical songs. Refreshingly, my fears were unfounded. Johnston chooses to argue for psalms rather than against hymns, making this “psalter catechism” a helpful and attractive resource for readers from a wide variety of worship styles. At the same time, reading a book so saturated with the riches of the Psalter left me painfully aware of the deficiencies of much of the church’s other music—which is probably a good thing.

My only quibble with 150 Questions is that some parts of it are very formal in tone, reminiscent of the style of the Westminster Catechisms. While this allows Johnston to provide succinct, precise definitions for the attributes of the Psalter, I tend to think a warmer, slightly more conversational tone would help the book’s winsomeness, especially for newcomers to the practice of psalm-singing. Overall, this is a minor blemish and should not deter the serious reader.

If Christians are not careful, psalm-singing, like any other tradition, can quickly become a source of pride and even idol-worship. It’s possible to read 150 Questions as nothing more than a militant defense of one denomination’s historical distinctive. But that’s not the point. Read with a humble, biblically-informed perspective, Johnston’s little book will help believers in every walk of life love the Book of Psalms more.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

August’s Psalm of the Month: 77

The eighth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

"I will walk in the strength of the LORD God"

Forever will the Lord reject
And never show His grace?
Has He withdrawn His steadfast love
And turned from me His face?

While lines like “O God, most holy are Your ways” may call to mind the blue Psalter Hymnal’s settings of Psalm 77 (#145-147), the version of this psalm that appears in the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal is much more recent, originating in the 2003 Scottish psalter Sing Psalms. The deep pain and earnest questioning of Psalm 77 are reinforced by the plaintive tune RESIGNATION, a traditional American folk melody harmonized here by Dale Grotenhuis. Although it does not appear in either the blue Psalter Hymnal or the revised Trinity Hymnal, the tune may be somewhat familiar in connection with Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.”

As you sing Psalm 77, notice how the inflection of the text coincides with the rise and fall of the musical line. Special attention should be given to the climax of the psalm in the middle of the third stanza: “Forever has his promise failed? Is God no longer kind?” In contrast, note the quiet assurance that accompanies the affirmations of God’s loving acts in stanzas 6 and 7, and share in the psalmist’s journey from crisis to comfort.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 8/2: stanzas 1-3
  • 8/9: stanzas 3-5
  • 8/16: stanzas 5,6
  • 8/23: stanzas 6,7
  • 8/30: all

Source: Psalm 77 in Sing Psalms

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 77

  • Remembering and moaning (vv. 1-3)
  • Remembering and doubting (vv. 4-9)
  • Remembering and searching (vv. 10-12)
  • Remembering and resting (vv. 13-20)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 77

Especially in the 400 “silent years” between the last Old Testament prophecies and the birth of Jesus, the Jews could well wonder whether God’s promises to Israel were “at an end for all time” (v. 8). With rampant idolatry and harsh persecution pressing in, believers would have seen a stark contrast between his “wonders of old” for them (v. 11) and his current silence. Jesus’ birth was the first “good news” (Luke 2:10) to God’s people after this time of dispersion and affliction. And what good news it was: the same Christ who led his people like a flock in the hands of Moses and Aaron (v. 20) would himself come as the Good Shepherd, from whose hand no sheep can be snatched (John 10).

Applying Psalm 77

  • Why did the psalmist moan when he remembered God (v. 3)?
  • Have you ever doubted whether God’s promises still apply to you (v. 8)?
  • Where does the psalmist turn for comfort (vv. 10,11)? How can you obtain the same comfort?
  • How do the terrifying events of vv. 16-19 reveal God’s steadfast love?
  • Why does Psalm 77 end so suddenly (v. 20)? How does this closing statement summarize the psalmist’s comfort?

The psalmist continued to set God before his view, wisely supporting his faith by the reflection that God, who never changes his love or his nature, can do nothing but in due time show mercy to his servants. Let us also learn to open our eyes to behold the works of God. They may seem insignificant by reason of the dimness of our eyes and the inadequacy of our perception, but if we examine them attentively, they will ravish us with admiration.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 77:12

 

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 5)

Eenige Gezangen

As I mentioned last week, much of the case for hymn-singing in the Christian Reformed Church was built on the claim that Reformed churches had never been opposed to hymn-singing on principle. The Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 commented:

[T]he introduction of Hymns for use in Public Worship was sanctioned already by our Reformed Fathers of the 16th century. For they have provided the Churches with the still existing small collection which is found in our Dutch Psalters, bearing the title ‘Eenige Gezangen,’ and from this it follows that the Hymn question cannot be a question of introducing Hymns, but only of an increase of the number that has been in use already for centuries.

–from “Report on the Hymn Question”, p. 8

I didn’t want to challenge the creators of the Psalter Hymnal on this point, but I couldn’t help feeling that this statement conflicted with my memory of Reformed church history. Was the committee’s argumentation historically fair? For an answer I turned to Biesterveld and Kuyper’s Kerkelijk Handboekje, translated by Richard De Ridder, which lists the following decisions of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands on what may be sung in worship:

  • “As for singing in the church, the use of the psalms as rendered by Petrus Datheen shall be maintained in all the Dutch churches so that nothing less fitting and less edifying is introduced because of the variety of versions” (Articles of Wesel, 1568, Chapter II, Par. 31).
  • “With respect to the question whether it is beneficial in addition to the Psalms of David set to poetry by Dathenus to make use of certain other spiritual songs and psalms of other scholarly persons in the [worship] of the church, the brothers decided that only the Psalms set into poetry by Dathenus shall be used, in addition to the other songs accompanying these, until this shall be differently decided by a General Synod” (Church Order of the Provincial Synod of Dordrecht, 1574, Art. XLIII).
  • “The Psalms of David translated by Pieter Datheen shall be sung in the Christian gatherings of the Netherlands churches as has been done until now, excluding the hymns which are not found in the Bible” (Acts of the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1578, Chapter IV, Art. XXIV).
  • “Only the Psalms of David shall be sung in the churches, omitting the hymns which are not found in the Scriptures” (Church Order of General Synod of Middelburg, 1581, Art. LI).
  • “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the twelve articles of faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon shall be sung. Whether or not to use the hymn, ‘O God who art our Father,’ etc. is left to the freedom of the churches. All other hymns shall be kept out of the churches, and where some have already been introduced, they shall be discontinued by the most appropriate means” (Post-Acta of the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1619, Session 162).

Much as I’d like to agree with the Psalter Hymnal Committee, reading these synodical stipulations leads me to a very different conclusion. Our Reformed forefathers were anything but enthusiastic about hymn-singing in public worship. In fact, they took a definite stand against “hymns which are not found in the Scriptures.” The Synod of Dort went so far as to declare that all hymns besides the “Eenige Gezangen” “shall be kept out of the churches,” and hymns currently being sung “shall be discontinued by the most appropriate means.” Their position was anything but wishy-washy!

But, I wondered, what about that “Eenige Gezangen” collection mentioned by the Psalter Hymnal Committee? What sort of hymns are included in there? To answer this question I got my hands on an old Dutch Psalter and looked in the back. These are the contents of the “Eenige Gezangen” (literally, “Some Songs”) included in the 1773 translation of the Psalter:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Song of Mary
  • The Song of Zechariah
  • The Song of Simeon
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Twelve Articles of Faith (Apostles’ Creed), in two different versions
  • Prayer before the Sermon (This is the hymn “O God, who art our Father,” referenced above.)
  • Morning Song
  • Prayer before Eating
  • Thanksgiving after Eating
  • Evening Song

Now let me break down this list a little bit. The first five songs are taken directly from Scripture, leaving only six that could be classified as “uninspired.” I have to do more research, but I strongly suspect that the morning and evening songs, and the songs before and after eating, were intended for private devotions rather than public worship. Of the six uninspired songs in this list, the Church Order of Dort only sanctions the Apostles’ Creed and the prayer before the sermon. The “Morgenzang” even mentions going out to the day’s labors, which would make it a strange selection for the Lord’s Day.*

This leaves us with only two songs that are not taken from the text of Scripture and are definitely sanctioned for use in public worship. But neither the Apostles’ Creed nor the prayer before the sermon are “hymns” in the modern American sense of the word. Rather, they are standard parts of the weekly liturgy, just set to music rather than recited. Instead of speaking the Apostles’ Creed, the church would sing it. Rather than hearing a prayer before the sermon, the church would sing it. This presents a fascinating picture of congregational participation in a Reformed worship service. It’s also substantially different than singing “Blessed Assurance” in the middle of Sunday worship—and substantially different than the kind of hymn-singing the Psalter Hymnal Committee was trying to justify in 1930.

What’s the point here? As I’ve emphasized before, I’m trying to restrict this series to a historical look at the creation of the first Psalter Hymnal, to see what light it can shed on the URCNA’s current Psalter Hymnal project. I haven’t even included Biblical prooftexts or theological arguments for or against psalm-singing in this post. Yet from a purely historical viewpoint, I still come away from this study disturbed—disturbed at the haste and apparent unconcern with which we supplanted the Psalter with a collection of uninspired, manmade hymns. If we decide to alter a tradition rooted in Scripture, sustained through millennia of church practice, and reinforced unequivocally by our Reformed forefathers, we had better be dead sure we are right.

–MRK

* It’s worth noting that the CRC’s Church Order allowed for the singing of the Morning and Evening Songs in worship by 1928. When did this change come about? I need to do more research to answer that question, too.


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